Bereft after moving her son into the freshman dorms at Cornell University a few months ago, Janet Hutchison found herself trawling the college's website for clues to his new life. A click on the weather link told her that Dan would need a jacket. A click on the chemistry department's Web page brought up the list of courses he'd have to choose from.
Then she found the school's "Hi, Mom!" Web cam. With a few taps of the mouse, she could swivel a camera high atop Barnes Tower and zoom in on the granite benches outside the campus store. She giddily called Dan on his cellphone and guided him into position. Then, there was her boy – live, on her computer screen – looking every inch the collegian, in his jeans, polo shirt, and new haircut, blowing kisses to Mom.
"It was heart-wrenching, just to see him," recalls Ms. Hutchison, a manager at a car rental company in Boston, a nearly six-hour drive from Ithaca, N.Y. "Just to see him live and to know he's OK."
Web cams have been a fixture on college campuses for close to a decade, beaming views of iconic quads and clock towers to would-be students and nostalgic alumni. But this year, Cornell joined a small number of campuses also deploying the cameras in a new way: as a digital tether to parents eager for live glimpses of children on their own for the first time.
For them, the "Hi, Mom!" cams offer a few seconds of reassurance that children are still brushing their hair, eating square meals, and wearing the Uggs that cost more than their parents once paid for tuition. When Dan Hutchison, 18, a chemistry major and rower, stepped under the lens for the first time, his mother beamed. "I told him, 'You finally got your hair cut,' " says Janet. "It was past time."
Though not explicitly called "mom cams," real-time cameras at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., (in the computer lab and cafeteria) and at Towson University in Maryland (the central grounds) bring Web viewers almost close enough to see whether Johnny remembered to floss. The websites of the University of Redlands in California and Ohio Wesleyan University give visitors nearly full control over roof-mounted lenses that can pan campus or zoom in on students locking up bikes, or flirting. At the University of Rochester website, visitors home in on three open-air spots at the student union: the "Hi, Mom! Balcony," the "Hi, Mom! Bridge," and the "Hi, Mom! Closeup."
"There's a community aspect – waving to your parents, saying 'hi' to friends, scheduling times to be by the Web cam – that's growing," says Chris Carson, president of CampusTours Inc., a Maine company that builds online tours of colleges.
The trend coincides with a crop of students who are in far more frequent contact with parents than earlier generations. One reason, says Barbara Hofer, a psychologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, is the proliferation of unlimited calling plans, cellphones, e-mail, and text messaging that make a quick check-in easy and cheap. But another reason may be spiraling college costs. "People are monitoring an investment," she says. "They've put so much into this, both in terms of time to prepare kids for school and the money they're paying once they're there."
Ron Stephany, vice president of university relations at the University of Redlands, installed the "Bulldog Cam" over the student center plaza in 2004 for alumni, but later heard that parents were going online to see their kids – perhaps too often.
"We actually refer to some parents now as helicopter parents, because they're always hovering," says Mr. Stephany, whose school launched a seven-week online course this fall to help parents of freshmen "let go." "It's not uncommon to be walking around and [hear] students on their cellphone, and they will literally be saying, 'Hi, Mom, I just got out of my English class. I'm on my way to lunch.' "
Though hundreds of campuses have Web cams, the number with close-up views remains small, largely because of questions about their public-relations value and the potential for abuse. "If there are guys out there mooning people or something crazy, and some parent is on there [watching], that's the last thing you want," says Mr. Carson.
Cornell officials report no hitches beyond the sort that might have made its late alumnus, Allen Funt, creator of "Candid Camera," smile: unsuspecting students shoveling food into their mouths, for instance. "If you watch the 'Hi, Mom!' view long enough, you'll see people doing things you wouldn't want to ... do when the whole world is watching," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, the liaison between the Cornell administration and the school's Web developers.
Still, officials here and at other schools brush aside questions about privacy, saying the areas in the camera's eye are in very public parts of campus and the video feeds are not recorded.
At Cornell, the "Hi Mom!" view went online in April, a few months after the university replaced an older, stationary camera. The new system had more bells and whistles, but took in a narrower view, unleashing a flood of e-mails. Carrie Sanzone, who oversees the camera, says feedback split into three camps: alumni who clamored for the original postcard-perfect view of McGraw Tower; campus staff who wanted an eye over Cayuga Lake, to know what to wear at lunch; and parents who confessed to scanning the ant-sized figures on Ho Plaza for signs of their kids.
Ms. Sanzone thought that if that many people wanted to see their children, maybe the school should accommodate them. This spring she programmed the camera so users could choose between three settings: McGraw Tower (with sky and lake), Ho Plaza, and "Hi, Mom!" Web visitors get control of the camera for 30 seconds at a time.
"The self-interest is, of course, we want to show the campus off," says Tommy Bruce, vice president of university communications. "And if we can add this additional nice thing, which is to allow parents a wink and nod [from their kids], then that's worth it."
The school doesn't track use of the "Hi, Mom!" setting, but says its Web cam page gets 50,000 to 60,000 views a month – making it one of the most visited pages on the university's website.
Early evidence suggests the "Hi Mom!" view is a bigger hit with Mom than her offspring. "It's for her sake," Dan Hutchison says of his once-a-week cameos, usually during a break between classes. "I have no interest in standing in Ho Plaza for too long. So it's me going 'Uh huh, uh huh, OK, OK, OK, bye, Mom.' "
On a recent afternoon, after Econ 313, Melinda Mathis, a sophomore from Bethesda, Md., stood between the benches outside the campus store, called her mom at work, and waved at the camera, which is enclosed in a protective orb atop a six-story tower. They talked about the weather (still warm), the home computer's wireless router (still balky), and the game of laser tag with Grandma planned for winter break (still on).
When the camera first went up, Ms. Mathis says, her mother would "randomly call" to check if she was near it. "My mom said, 'Every time you go back to the campus store, you need to call! You need to call!' Um, I did not call her every time I went to the campus store."
To judge from the e-mails to Cornell's webmaster, however, anything is better than nothing. "I love the 'Hi, Mom' camera," one mother wrote. "It's just wonderful. Even if my son has only gone there once the whole semester."